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Gopher rushing attack leads to 31-10 victory over Maryland

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Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks combined for 257 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns against the Terrapins

Minnesota v Maryland Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Minnesota Golden Gophers rebounded from back-to-back conference losses to collect their first Big Ten win of the season and improve to 4-2 with a 31-10 victory over the Maryland Terrapins on the road. This was the Gophers’ first conference road win since beating Purdue in October a year ago. The win over the Terrapins was a much needed confidence boost for the Gophers after two weeks of demoralizing losses. They’ll now need to capitalize on a midseason slate of games that includes Rutgers, Illinois, and Purdue, who are a combined 7-12 on the season.

The big unknown leading up to this game was redshirt junior quarterback Conor Rhoda, a former walk-on forced into his first collegiate start after the concussion to starter Mitch Leidner against Iowa last week. Rhoda was far from spectacular, but avoided turning the ball over and played well enough to keep the Gophers in the driver’s seat. He finished 7-of-15 with 82 yards and one touchdown, which came off a screen pass to Shannon Brooks for six before halftime. Rhoda never looked very comfortable in the pocket and often panicked when pressured. He had a bit too much heat on a lot of his passes and a lack of timing with his receivers was evident. It could’ve been much worse for an inexperienced former walk-on, but if you were hoping to see Rhoda emerge as a viable alternative to Leidner, keep dreaming.

But the Terrapins had quarterback problems of their own. Starter Perry Hills did not play after suffering a shoulder injury against Penn State, so freshman Tyrrell Pigrome was under center for Maryland. Pigrome finished the game with a staggering 25 carries for 71 yards, as he was often forced to scramble for yards to escape a frequently collapsing pocket. Through the air, the freshman was 18-for-37 with 161 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. But 114 of his passing yards came in the Terrapins’ final three drives of the game. Prior to that first scoring drive for Maryland in the fourth quarter, their offense mustered just four first downs.

The first quarter was an inauspicious start for both teams. Both teams went three-and-out on their opening drives before Minnesota cornerback KiAnte Hardin intercepted Pigrome at the Maryland 36 — his second interception in two games since returning from suspension. But the Gophers failed to capitalize, with kicker Emmit Carpenter missing a 36-yard field goal that would’ve yielded the first points of the game.

It would remain scoreless until early in the second quarter, when Maryland punt returner Will Likely muffed a punt and allowed the Gophers to recover the ball at the Maryland 16. Three plays later, Rodney Smith would score on an eight-yard rush to give the Gophers a 7-0 lead that they would never relinquish. The Terrapins had three offensive drives the rest of the first half and punted on each of them, failing to record even one first down. Minnesota would pad their lead before halftime with a 17-yard screen pass from Rhoda to Brooks to cap a 47-yard drive in the final two minutes, allowing the Gophers to head into the locker room up 14-0 on the road.

The Gophers would march 50 yards to the Maryland 19 on their opening drive of the second half, allowing Carpenter to redeem his earlier miss with a 37-yard field goal to extend their lead to 17-0. The teams would exchange punts on their next four offensive drives before the Terrapins wound find some life on offense behind the legs and arm of Pigrome, capping a 57-yard drive with a 32-yard field goal by kicker Adam Greene to cut the Gophers’ lead to 17-3 in the third quarter.

It didn’t take long for the Gophers to respond. On the third play of the ensuing drive, Rodney Smith blew past a stacked box of Terrapins defenders on 3rd and 1 and raced to the end zone for a 70-yard touchdown run.

With the Gophers’ lead at 24-3 in the fourth quarter, Maryland kept at it, with Pigrome driving the Terrapins’ offense 87 yards on 10 plays, capping it with an 11-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Moore where Pigrome caught Gopher cornerback Ray Buford out of position with his back turned to the receiver in the end zone. Minnesota, leading 24-10, would go three and out on their next drive, handing the ball back to Maryland. Prigrome led the offense to the Minnesota 22, where freshman cornerback Antoine Winfield, Jr. iced the game with an 82-yard pick six off a tipped pass.

Maryland isn’t a great football team, and back-to-back double-digit losses to Penn State and Minnesota calls into question their 4-0 start to the season, but this was a good road win for the Gophers. With Rhoda limited in what he can do and the wide receivers struggling to get separation against the Maryland secondary, Smith and Brooks stepped up big, combining for 257 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns. The offensive line was feast or famine for a while, with Donnell Greene struggling at left tackle and Garrison Wright sideline for a bit with an ankle injury.

The Gopher defense has looked like an entirely different unit the last two weeks after struggling through the first four games of the season. They held Iowa to 14 points and forced three turnovers last week, and held Maryland to 10 points and forced three turnovers again this week. The return of Hardin and big contributions from Winfield have done wonders for the secondary, and the emergence of Jonathan Celestin at linebacker — along with freshmen standouts Carter Coughlin and Kamal Martin — with Cody Poock sidelined has helped make this defense whole again.

Next up: The Rutgers Scarlet Knights, who are averaging 5.4 points per game against opponents not named Howard or New Mexico.